The Houston Astros were on the ropes a few times in the 2017 playoffs but fought back each time en route to winning the franchise’s first World Series. With last year’s strong core still intact and GM Jeff Luhnow having made some excellent moves in the offseason, perhaps Houston is still in a prime position to not only win the AL West after going 101-61 last year but also take home a second consecutive championship.
That goal is within reach despite stronger competition in the AL this year, but Houston can easily overcome the target on its back with its strong and slightly revamped roster.
1 Greatest Addition: Gerrit Cole
The Astros' starting rotation was already strong with former Cy Young winners Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander at the top, and the addition of Cole is a further blessing. The 27-year-old righty was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in January, with Houston sending relievers Michael Feliz and Joe Musgrove along with two prospects to the Pirates in exchange.
Cole had a rough year in 2017, going 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA. However, that can be attributed to bad luck as his home run-to-fly ball ratio skyrocketed from 6.8% in 2016 to 12.9% last year. His FIP was also 4.08 and his xFIP 3.81, so it's possible the fielders behind him weren't at their best. Houston has some strong defensive infielders in Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, so Cole's numbers should improve.
He's now in a rotation that also features talented arms in Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton, so being on an actual contender could also do hopes for his confidence on the mound.
2 Greatest Loss: Alex Cora
Cora served as Houston's bench coach last year and based on the team's run to a championship, it is clear he and manager AJ Hinch did an excellent job of developing a rapport with the players. Cora also did such a good job that, even with just one year of coaching experience on his resume, he was hired to manage the Boston Red Sox after John Farrell was let go.
Cora is known for being a big analytics guy, which surely helped him get the Boston job as baseball is trending towards that approach. Losing someone like a bench coach may seem simple but as Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post reported back in October, former Astros DH Carlos Beltran had more than some kind words for Cora:
“He’s always in the clubhouse getting to know the players, getting to know which buttons he could push on each player to make them go out there and play the game hard, which is great,” Beltran said. “I think I always feel that sometimes managers, they draw a very defined line between players and manager. And sometimes they get caught up [in] not going to the clubhouse because they don’t want to feel like they’re invading [the players’] space. But as a player I love when managers come to the clubhouse, sit down, talk to us, get to know us, ask about our family, about everything. And that really, for me, means a lot. Alex does that real well.”
Cora was succeeded by former New York Yankees third base coach Joe Espada, who clearly has some big shoes to fill.
3 Greatest Asset: Jose Altuve
It's impossible to find a bad thing to say about Jose Altuve, except maybe if he's the reason your team lost to Houston. Even then, any criticism of him is shrouded in tremendous praise because the man is just that good a ballplayer. He can field, hit for average and power, and is far better than his 5'6" frame suggests.
The reigning AL MVP had an excellent 2017, winning his third batting title with a .346 average. Altuve also slugged 24 home runs with 81 RBI and 32 stolen bases. He also hit .310 with seven homers and 14 RBI in the playoffs, all while earning a cool $4.5m, with another $6m coming in 2018.
No disrespect to Carlos Correa or Alex Bregman, but both have short paths to go before we can even consider placing them on Altuve's plane. Altuve has been a model of consistency year in and year out and will certainly earn a long-term extension in the next year or two.
4 Greatest Liability: The bullpen
For all the Astros' strengths, there is one glaring weakness in the bullpen. Houston posted a bullpen ERA of 4.27 in 2017 (17th in MLB) while finishing in a three-way tie for sixth with 45 saves as a team. Winning the World Series aside, that's not good enough. The bridge to closer Ken Giles (pictured) must be stronger.
And speaking of Giles, he posted an abysmal 11.74 ERA in the playoffs. He struggled so badly against the Yankees in the ALCS that he was barely used at all after blowing the lead and taking the loss in Game 4 of that series.
The good news for Houston is that veteran Joe Smith was added on a two-year deal and he strengthens the bridge to Giles, but the rest of the staff must follow. Everyone from Tony Sipp to Chris Devenski must be better because more often than not, Houston's bats won't bail out shoddy bullpen work.
5 X-Factor: Carlos Correa
Carlos Correa has impressed in his three MLB seasons since being the first overall pick back in 2012, but he must take a step forward this year if he wants to be called elite. The big shortstop set career highs with a line of .315/.391/.550 and 24 home runs, but injuries limited him to 109 games.
Correa could also work to improve his defense. His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) was -1.7 last year and his UZR/150 was -3.7. Consider that last year's AL Gold Glove-winning shortstop Andrelton Simmons' UZR was an eye-popping 15.5 and his UZR/150 18.2. Correa doesn't need to reach those numbers, but he at least needs to get out of negative territory.
That aside, Correa's main goal for 2018 is to stay off the disabled list. He was on a tear before getting hurt last year, so just imagine what he could do over the course of a full season. If he can stay healthy and play at the level he did last year, Houston's chances of repeating as champions are good.
6 Final thoughts
On paper, Houston has everything it needs to get back to the ALCS at an absolute minimum. The only way this team takes a step back at all in 2018 is if key players are injured for an extended period of time. The lineup is just as strong as it was last year and with the addition of Cole, the pitching staff is even stronger.
The Astros slugged their way to a championship last year despite up-and-down pitching in the playoffs, and a more balanced attack could see them back in the Fall Classic in 2018 if everyone stays healthy.
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